MSJC Students Gain Knowledge and Experience through the Western Science Center

March 7, 2016

As a child growing up in Carlsbad, Rebecca Byrnes dug for arrowheads in her backyard.

Though she never found any artifacts, Byrnes quickly fell in love with the study of humankind and ancient history.

Now, the 19-year-old anthropology student at Mt. San Jacinto College is helping design an exhibit on human evolution at the Western Science Center in Hemet.

“It’s a really fascinating, concrete way to connect with history,” Byrnes said. “It gives us a glimpse of how our ancestors lived.”

The exhibit is the brainchild of a creative, new scientific partnership between the college and the museum in Hemet.

As a student intern at the museum, Byrnes gets hands-on scientific experience in her field of study. She is one of seven MSJC students taking part in an Occupational Internship Class. The other students involved are Bo-Thomas Cheshire, Michaele Castor, Anthony Christopher, Lisa Hathaway, Jason Sandlin, and Jessica McMeans.

“A key part of our mission is to educate the public about science, and a great way to do that is to involve students in every step of the educational process,” said Dr. Alton C. Dooley Jr., executive director of the museum. “Our hope is that this will be the first of many such collaborative exhibits.”

Exploring our roots

The public display will open in November at the Western Science Center, which ranks as Riverside County’s top repository for archaeological and paleontological treasures. The museum has more than one million specimens ranging from Ice Age fossils to an array of Native American artifacts unearthed during construction of Diamond Valley Lake by the Metropolitan Water District.

The exhibit will trace the biological changes of humans and their ancestors going back six million years as they adapted to their environment, including walking upright and making and using of tools for cutting, scraping, chopping and hunting. A big factor in our species advancement has been a four-fold increase in the size of our brains over the last 4 ½ million years.

The upcoming museum display will feature strictly hand-made replicas of skulls and skeletons manufactured by Bone Clone, Inc., a company specializing in reproductions for museums and colleges.

At the exhibit, you might glimpse a replica of a Neandertal skull, our closest extinct human relative. Or you might see what the bones of Ardipithecus ramidus (our earliest human ancestors) looked like.

MSJC recently spent $8,500 in grant funds to buy more than two dozen casts, primarily of skulls, for the exhibit. These casts will be used in MSJC classrooms once the exhibit closes. With their historical accuracy, the casts of prehistoric species tell scientists a lot about what people ate and the size of their brains.

Exploring science together

MSJC partners with a variety of industries, agencies and other colleges and universities to ensure students are receiving relevant and quality education. The innovative, student-focused internship program with the Western Science Center was the result of discussions between Dooley and Professor Erik Ozolins, who chairs the Anthropology Department at MSJC. Ozolins also became a research associate at the museum.

“With this program, we’re focusing on our history in the biological world,” Ozolins said. “What makes us ‘us’!”

Looking to the future

Ozolins sees a bright future in students like Byrnes and their dedication to the new scientific partnership.

Byrnes plans to become an archaeologist, conduct research on site, and see her discoveries placed in leading museums. And one day, she wants to pay it forward and teach archeology at a college or university.

“Our cultural heritage is precious,” Byrnes said. “This new partnership represents an opportunity to explore the world and share my passion.”

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Anthropology students and their instructor from Mt. San Jacinto College catalog skulls that will be used in a human evolution exhibit they are helping to design for the Western Science Center in Hemet. From left, Dr. Alton Dooley (Western Science Center Director), student Jason Sandlin, Darla Radford (Western Science Center Collections manager), student Michaele Castor, anthropology professor Erik Ozolins, and students Rebecca Byrnes and Lisa Hathaway.